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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Debating the Whitewash of History

SEOUL, South Korea -- Ever since Japan approved a controversial right-wing textbook in March, the South Korean government has demanded revisions to the Japanese curriculum and stepped up long-standing accusations that Japan whitewashes the history taught in its schools.

Seoul insists that Japan admit to its students that it subjugated East Asia, forced Korean women into prostitution and jailed and killed men who resisted Japan's 1910-45 colonization of the Korean peninsula.

Amid the furor, street protests and escalating diplomatic tension, however, this nation's own textbook authors are coming under growing scrutiny for a kind of selective amnesia that some say resembles that of their erstwhile oppressors.

Historians, civic groups and educators say the distortions in middle and high school texts center on South Korea's treatment of collaborators during the often-brutal Japanese occupation, credit for the independence struggle against Japan and the exact role of the U.S. military on the peninsula.

Like their Japanese counterparts, critics say, South Korean bureaucrats and politicians have resisted a close examination of the past because a measure of their legitimacy is linked to the official right-wing version of events.

"Korean textbooks sometimes say, ?history will judge,'" says Ha Dae-ung, a student at Yonsei University and co-author of "Correcting the Wrongs of Korean Textbooks."

"But in Korea, history can't judge," he says. "A lot of people really don't want to look too closely at the truth."

Granted, thorny issues of historical interpretation are found in every country, and virtually any government tries to justify its political system to its youngsters. And history, even when subject to broad-based scrutiny, can never be completely objective. But Korea has limited debate on many sensitive issues, arguably compounding the interpretation problem.

The most politically charged -- and most studiously ignored -- is the way textbooks treat the issue of Koreans who collaborated with Japan and helped subjugate their compatriots.

The issue remains potent more than half a century later because many of today's elites in every field -- from law to politics to business to the arts -- are descendants of this collaborator class and continue to benefit directly and indirectly from its legacy.

Critics say those in power use their influence over school curricula and other social institutions to deflect attention and obfuscate their families' roles during the Japanese occupation.

The spoils for collaborators included wealth, social mobility and access to education that, in turn, provided a leg up for their offspring.

Those who openly resisted Japanese rule early in the 20th century often paid with their lives. Their families were blacklisted, capping social mobility for generations.

A survey in the early 1990s by the Institute of National Affairs Studies, a Seoul-based civic group, found that half of all South Korean professionals and 90 percent of bureaucrats came from families with strong ties to the Japanese colonial powers. The group says the findings are still relevant.

"It's a taboo subject," says Bang Hak-jin, who heads the group. "This issue is almost completely absent from the textbooks."

South Korea's middle school textbook avoids any mention of the Korean role in the occupation, while its high school counterpart devotes two paragraphs, explaining that a 1945 move to punish Japanese collaborators was quickly dropped after the government failed to support it.

A second major blind spot, critics say, is the way the textbooks exaggerate South Korea's contribution to the anti-Japanese independence struggle while largely ignoring that of their neighbors in what is now North Korea.

A more accurate reading of history suggests that resistance was rather one-sided and in the North's favor. This divide has been compounded by the fact that many Japanese collaborators were ejected from North Korea after the Korean War and came south, where they had a major influence on North-South policy.

"The movement for independence from Japan was national," says Kim Yug-hun, a history teacher at Seoul's Sang Gye High School. "And after 1922, most of the struggle came from the socialists. But the textbooks almost completely ignore the socialists' achievements, and laud those of the nationalists, who were concentrated in the south after World War II."

The subtext here, some critics say, is a bit of sleight of hand by Korea's elites after World War II. Many families that had collaborated with Japan quickly seized the anti-communist mantle as a powerful tool to mask their past. Over time, the two issues became inextricably linked, so anyone who raised the Japanese collaboration charge was branded a Communist.

The textbooks have also come under fire for their depiction of the U.S. military and political role on the peninsula. This may be less a case of denial than a re-evaluation of Korea's relationship with the United States, but one charge is that the texts have downplayed the U.S. role in the Korean War to the point where it's almost a footnote.

As South Korea's historical blind spots come under review, the nation's textbook-selection process has come under greater scrutiny. There's only one textbook available nationwide for each age group -- and it is chosen by a committee beholden to the Education Ministry.

"A single version of history based on a uniform ideology inevitably serves the interest of the state, and teachers end up acting as official mouthpieces," says Lee Hyun-hee, a history professor and textbook committee member for the last nine years. "As a result, elements of the textbook are based on myth, not evidence, resulting in mistakes that can be compared to the Japanese distortions."